10 June 2000 | Buddy-51
great Carrey performance in an uneven film
Your fondness for `Man on the Moon' may well be predicated on your feelings for Andy Kaufman, both as comic performer and offstage human being. And, as this film suggests, there was not, ultimately, a very wide gap between the two. Indeed, the point of the film seems to be that, with Kaufman, the many characters he showed to us on stage and T.V. pretty much reflected the man who existed in real life.
This may be both the strength and the weakness of the movie itself. Kaufman's purported genius has always eluded me. Ostensibly, it lay, I imagine, in his metaphorically giving the finger to his audience while entertaining them at the same time. That audience, ultimately discovering that it was the butt of the joke, then was able to go a step further and become a willing part of the act, allowing them all to feel superior to the uninitiated masses still deluded enough to be on the outside looking in. Kaufman's act became, then, a kind of exclusive comic club, a collective act of defiance against the social norms of theatrical convention and good taste. Thus, we see him in the film reading the entire novel `The Great Gatsby' verbatim to a stunned and ultimately hostile college audience; we see him wrestling women while spouting inflammatory chauvinistic rhetoric and deliberately muffing his lines on live national television in a brilliant blurring of the line between reality and theatricality. The problem, however, is that iconoclasm has never been a source of humor in itself, and much of Kaufman's act and persona came across as heavy-handed, smug and self-conscious, particularly in his grating Lithuanian `Taxi' character. In short, Kaufman always seemed too full of himself and so dazzled by his own cleverness and cuteness to ever be truly funny. It was like he was always pointing his thumbs back at himself saying, `Look how funny I am.' Such unctiousness inspires us not to laugh.
The film itself is an uneven study of the man. The first half is particularly shaky. After a clever 5-minute view of Kaufman as a performance-obsessed child, we move to his young adulthood where we see him bombing in a local nightclub with an act so aggressively unfunny that we cannot even imagine that it could possibly be real. Then, virtually in the blink of an eye, he is discovered by his future manager, again, in a scene of staggering incredibility, in which Kaufman somehow manages to reduce his audience to helpless laughter with material that couldn't possibly evoke even titters let alone room-shaking guffaws. Before we know it, Kaufman has somehow landed a hosting job on `Saturday Night Live' (yet another bad performance) and has become so much in demand that he not only secures a role in a new sitcom, `Taxi,' but is allowed to make all sorts of demands from the producers in exchange for his services. The chronicle of his meteoric rise to fame simply lacks the detail necessary to make it credible.
The movie finds surer footing as it moves ahead in time. If anything, the gross lack of humor of many of his performances recreated for the film simply underlines the overrated comic gifts of Kaufman himself. Although the writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karasczewski, and director, Milos Forman, convey an obvious attitude of affection towards Kaufman, they do not shy away from portraying the self-centered petulance that governed many of his actions both in his professional and personal life. The most poignant moments come when he discovers he has lung cancer, yet cannot convince many of the people who are closest to him that he is really sick, so skeptical has his life of duplicity made them. Though Courtney Love is very good indeed as the woman who learns to love Kauffman, the portrayals of her character and their relationship as a whole remain sketchy and superficial throughout. We never really sense much chemistry between them since they never seem to experience much in the way of revelatory conflict. She simply loves him unconditionally, and she is given little to do but beam pleasantly at him or look perpetually concerned for his health and well being.
`Man on the Moon's one element of undeniable brilliance lies in the triumphant performance of Jim Carrey in the starring role. In physical appearance, in mannerisms, in comic stylings, he, quite literally, becomes Andy Kaufman! Whether on stage or behind-the-scenes, Carrey never hits a false note, displaying his uncanny ability to bring out the humanity that might easily have been lost in a portrayal of a very eccentric comic artist. Indeed, Carrey lends some much needed depth to a screenplay that, in its bare-bone plotting, often seems undernourished and underfed. `Man on the Moon' becomes, ultimately then, more compelling as a steppingstone in Carrey's development as an artist than as an elegy for the artist who once was.